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Think Again Part 2: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget)

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.) - See more at: http://www.onviolence.com/?e=775#sthash.qYBD8JIS.dpuf
o read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.) - See more at: http://www.onviolence.com/?e=775#sthash.qYBD8JIS.dpuf

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

Congress recently passed a new budget about the same time that President Obama laid out his plan for reforming the intelligence community. Unfortunately, as others have written, they missed a huge opportunity to declassify the “black budget”, the part of our annual spending which goes to intelligence, opening up the dark intelligence world to the bright, cleansing sunlight of transparency. Like most people in the intelligence game, they continued to pretend that Edward Snowden didn’t leak that same black budget six months earlier.


Today we continue debunking the myths about intelligence related to Edward Snowden’s leaks. (Find the previous post here.)

Myth 4: We need that funding because the world is more dangerous than it has ever been. Again, in James Clapper's words:

“Today’s world is as fluid and unstable as it has been in the past half century...”

General Clapper again relies on an emotionally-compelling reason for increased spending. He doesn't provide facts, data or evidence--the logically/rationally compelling reasons--to increase intelligence spending. As we’ve covered before the world is, if anything, safer and more stable than at any time in history. Not even in proportional terms, but in real world terms; less people die each year from armed conflict, including terrorism, than at any time in history. This is due to rising global incomes, the spread of international institutions and the general decline of violence in the modern and contemporary periods.

Yet General Clapper said the opposite.

Further--and we need to write about this more--no rational foreign policy or national security expert could reasonably claim the Cold War was less dangerous or unstable than today. If anything, the Cold War motivated both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to oust unfriendly dictators, which is why the rate of civil wars (and terrorism) skyrocketed.

Myth 5: This spending keeps you safe. I could provide an explanation of logical fallacies, but I think I’d rather have Lisa and Homer Simpson demonstrate for me. After a bear sighting in Springfield, Homer says:

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.

Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.

Homer: Thank you, dear.

Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.

Homer: Oh, how does it work?

Lisa: It doesn’t work.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?

[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]

Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]

It would be funny, if the intelligence world didn’t snooker the the Washington Post with the same logic:

The United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence during that period, an outlay that U.S. officials say has succeeded in its main objective: preventing another catastrophic terrorist attack in the United States.

Of course, officials can say that; they just can't prove it. Over ten years, what amount of spending would have allowed a terror attack? $100 billion? $200 billion? Clearly, if we had spent a trillion dollars, that would have prevented another catastrophic attack as well, but since a terrorist attack didn’t happen, we didn’t need to spend an extra $500 billion.

We’ll have more in future posts, but in the mean time, I have a rock that prevents terrorism. Anyone want to buy it?

Myth 6: Terrorism is our gravest threat. No, that's still nuclear weapons possessed by states. Terrorism is more likely, but less serious. The Washington Post, again quoting from the document, wrote, “In words, deeds and dollars, intelligence agencies remain fixed on terrorism as the gravest threat to national security." Though intelligence officials believe that terrorism is the gravest threat, that doesn’t make it so. This myth shows how the intelligence community--even in secret--can’t accurately identify threats to the country.

Myth 7: The CIA is understaffed/underfunded. For this, we go to past On V contributor Matt Bradley via email:

I thought this was the case. Yet, the CIA's budget has exploded, and as the article rightly points out, it now is a paramilitary force.

Myth 8: Technology will save us. The Washington Post again:

The documents make clear that U.S. spy agencies’ long-standing reliance on technology remains intact. If anything, their dependence on high-tech surveillance systems to fill gaps in human intelligence has intensified.”

I've said before that President Bush's biggest missed opportunity was the chance to really improve language training across America to help with human intelligence. He also could have allowed more immigration to provide a pool of foreign experts. He did neither, and the intelligence community never really strengthened their human intelligence collection capabilities.

Why not? Economics. Intelligence-contracting companies make more money off of fancy tech than training people to learn Arabic. Yet somehow the Post and government officials think this reliance on technology could be a good thing. Think tanks funded by defense contractors want Americans to think this too. Americans--led by their imagination of innovation in Silicon Valley--are also prone to buying this. As the IC"s own report cards show, human intelligence gaps can't be filled through tech, no matter how hard we try.

ten comments

Two comments, on myths 7 and 8.

CIA has multiple roles, once divided among 4 directorates (analysis, operations, technology, support). A more accurate rendering of CIA’s staffing/funding would break out how its resources are allocated toward its functions and missions.

The idea that technology will save the USA dates to the Korean War, and the perception that superior technology will keep the Red Hordes at bay. When this myth is punctured, either by others’ success or our own failure (Sputnik, Vietnam) we are quick to redouble our efforts to build the technological solutions that show near-term payoffs, rather than invest heavily in long-term development of personnel. The exception (proving the rule) is the National Defense Education Act of 1957, that paved the way for the scientific discoveries of the 1970s and 80s.

About Myth 5: search for ‘Odin Ice Giants’

I actually disagree somewhat with “No, that’s still nuclear weapons possessed by states.”, as it appears that nobody fires those devices just as nobody used (much) chemical weapons in WW2.
A biological weapon may be(come) much more dangerous if it’s really infectious by air and kills, but not too quick.

SO – I’m not sure about the bio threat. Bio weapons require decent labs and have fairly short shelf lives. I get that they can be dangerous, but consider the likelihood fairly low. We’re far more likely to see an accidental pandemic than a deliberate one.

Weren’t there ricin letters sent by an still unknown source?

The problem with terrorism via substances is the distribution system. Highly effective would be a system for spraying on large human assemblies (at a concert, sports game or Muslims during the Haj in Mecca for example).
Let’s try an agricultural aircraft armed with LSD, an illegal, readily available substance. An LSD overdose can kill, cripple for lifetime and goes through the skin.
I have not the faintest clue how the intelligence services want to hinder a SOB who attempts just that. He can do this all single handedly with some money and training in one of the drug labs that are around.

Salafist terrorists do not use such weapons, because their attacks are meant for an audience that purports to shun drugs. Drug abuse and extramarital sex in the Muslim world, including Salafists, is one of the topics that show the typical differences between acts and pertained image. The high dependance on maximum PR effect and ideological indoctrination via contacts are the weaknesses of Salafist terror that is not a stand alone complex. These links are a legitmate point of attack, but billions of dollars seem like squashing ants with elephants.

KRT, LE/CT intelligence services would probably “hinder” that theoretical through the use of agents or informants produced by narcotic manufacturing and distribution arrests. There are lines of former and current knuckleheads that would be very happy to receive compensation from an agency’s general fund network to rat out a deranged individual.

Bioterrorism is a legitimate and emerging threat. Sure, modern domestic bioterror attacks’ successes were derived from accessibility to sensitive laboratories (ie. 2001 US anthrax incidents). We could even presume that the Sunshine Project’s assertions about transglobal terror organizations are sound and eternally valid. But the enemy is becoming evidently more insidious and covert in nature in devising methods to obtain such weaponized chem and bio-agents. Islamist bad guys aren’t even attempting to synthesize or black market-purchase nasty stuff anymore. We had to set up black ops in Libya with a deceptive State Department function just to smokecheck all the AQ and AQ affiliates from running off with Ghaddafi’s inventory.

I think the prevalence of governmental instability around ethnically diverse and depressed states should be more of a concern for ‘off the books’ armaments to disappear.

That was one example what a stand alone terrorist can accomplish. The human connections are the major weakness of every terrorist planning. The most dangerous terrorist is alone and intelligent, like the Una-bomber. Add some money from illegal activities and he is also well equipped.
The problem for each terrorist, after the first strike, people will undertake extraordinary efforts to hunt him down and uncover all possible tracks.
From this perspective, the ilk of Al Qaida runs a pretty good organization that scans for vulnerable persons, nurtures them and exploits their suicides. Unlike a normal suicide that is averted to publish much about, these suicides go viral in the media and have a clout of follow on suicides.
The weak link of human interconnectedness is minimized by having a suitable person commit and almost certainly die during the process. The real terrorists are the psychologists and technicians who prepare the human weapons for these tasks.
There are two ways to reply, hunt down the nodes of the network that sends out human weapons or invest a staggering effort into detection of weaponized humans with uncertain success rate. Declaring “war on terror” and an “axis of evil” was playing right into the hands of the recruitment efforts of such organizations. By now, they are busy fighting turf wars in the Muslim world, another opportunity that strengthens the capabilities of such groups via income and veterans.
It’s my perception that we are not actually fighting them down, but fighting them up to make these groups stronger at the price of the secuity of our civil liberties.

I wouldn’t go as far as saying a lone wolf terrorist is the most dangerous. Lone wolf incidents may be increasing in the US and other Western countries, but their consequential lethality rates pale in comparison to contemporary group-based Islamist terror organizations. Lone wolf attacks are a marginal phenomenon. Their lethality is not inevitable, as lone wolves subject themselves to threats making them traceable and preventable. However, if the Unabomber — or the New York Mad Bomber before him — had the capacity AND committed intention to perpetuate his appealing ideology or personal grievance(s) to a global audience on the internet, then, maybe, the lone wolf would be a primary focus of most LE/CT/INT communities. Because the internet is the true self-radicalization enabling factor. Group-based terror activities continue to dump resources into online recruitment. It’s not the “psychologists and technicians” that condition a suicide-born terrorist into self-detonation, it’s the impoverished nature and psychosexual outlook on a polygamist society that’s, in my opinion, truly causative.

“Lone wolf” terrorists aren’t that much of a threat in the grand scheme of things. As an aside, if the internet connects the world’s wingnuts, are they really “lone wolves,” or are they a loosely affiliated pack? Not that that’s really relevant, except for on the marketing front. They’re typically just idiots (see “Four Lions”) who only achieve any kind of success accidentally, and do far less damage than we do to ourselves on our highways on any given weekend.

Matt & Eric:

Lot of history going on now. Where you guys been?

@ We’re not done Carl. Just Michael’s been busy with business school. Expect new posts next week.

As far as the history in the making, we’re more intrigued by the revelations about the CIA last week than Russia. Not that Russia doesn’t matter; we’re not Russian experts.